The Search for Security in a Changing World: COVID-19 and Backyard Chickens

COVID-19 has impacted practically every aspect of daily life in Canada. The way we engage with the world around us has been drastically altered, and as the pandemic highlights more and more cracks in our system, many of us are left searching for security (Gardner, 2020)

Our food systems have been under particular scrutiny recently, with workers’ and environmental rights at the forefront of public concerns (Harris, 2020). But with instability in Canada’s food system comes instability in the grocery store (Kennedy, 2020), and many farmers have lowered production levels to manage pandemic-related pressures on the food processing and packaging sectors (Edmiston, 2020). Because of this, many Canadians have taken matters into their own hands. While some have turned to vegetable gardens, others have looked to egg production, and urban backyard chicken numbers have soared to a record high (Duke, 2020).

This trend has actually been seen before. During the world wars, many Torontonians sought out food security in the form of ‘victory gardens,’ using outdoor space around their homes and in other parts of the city to grow food for their families (Chiasson, 2020). Is the rise of the backyard chicken in Canada an offshoot of the victory garden phenomenon? Well, yes and no. While the pandemic has prompted an onslaught of panic-buying, leaving some Canadian grocery stores momentarily egg-free, keeping chickens is not always more cost-effective when compared to buying eggs from the grocery store (The Hustle, 2020). Still, panic-buying has extended to the purchase and rental of chickens, coops, fencing, and feed (Balough, 2020; Chappell, 2020). The chicken-keeping frenzy, therefore, might be as much about finding emotional and social stability in an isolating time as it is about insulating against food insecurity, now and in the future. 

For many Canadian families, urban chicken farming is a way to diversify their time spent at home, by teaching themselves and their children a new skill (Tunney, 2020), and welcoming new companion animals into their lives (The Hustle, 2020). Many believe that this transition should be a permanent one, and that closed-loop and localized agricultural systems, in which dependence on external resources is significantly decreased, and waste is minimal, could be the answer to many of our food system concerns (Klassen, 2020). While no single answer to issues regarding sustainability in agriculture exists, small-scale farming could certainly be part of the solution (Driscoll, 2012). Backyard chickens might be part of that equation. While urban chicken farming and purchasing eggs each come with their own costs and benefits, clearly, Canadians aren’t content with agricultural business as usual, at least for the time being. 

Will the backyard chicken frenzy meet the same end as the victory gardens of the world wars? To answer that question, we will need to wait and see if the COVID-19 pandemic will prompt permanent systemic change in our food systems and beyond. That remains to be seen, but for now, Canada’s urban chicken population appears to be here to stay. 

References

Balogh, M. (June 2, 2020). ‘Chickens are the new Toilet Paper’: People Flock to Backyard Chickens, Gardens Amidst Pandemic. Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved from: https://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/chickens-are-the-new-toilet-paper-people-flock-to-backyard-chickens-gardens-amidst-pandemic

Chappell, B. (April 3, 2020). ‘We are Swamped’: Coronavirus Propels Interest in Raising Backyard Chickens for Eggs. National Public Radio. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/2020/04/03/826925180/we-are-swamped-coronavirus-propels-interest-in-raising-backyard-chickens-for-egg

Chiasson, A. (April 5, 2020). ‘Almost Therapeutic’: COVID-10 Pandemic has Many PeopleTurning to Their Gardens. CBC. Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/covid-19-food-security-gardening-1.5519635

Driscoll, M. (October 24, 2012). How can we Build a Sustainable Farming System for all? The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/farming-system-principles-based-sustainable

Duke, L. (May 27, 2020). Move Over, Sourdough, the Latest COVID-19 Trend is Here:Backyard Chickens. The Chronicle Herald. Retrieved from: https://www.thechronicleherald.ca/lifestyles/regional-lifestyles/move-over-sourdough-the-latest-covid-19- trend-is-here-backyard-chickens-454477/

Edmiston, J. (April 16, 2020). Chicken Farmers to Shrink National Flock by 12% as Coronavirus Takes Toll on Canada’s Food Supply Chain. Financial Post. Retrieved from: https://financialpost.com/news/retail-marketing/chicken-farmers-to-shrink-national-flock-by-12-as-coronavirus-takes-toll-on-canadas-food-supply-chain

Gardner, D. (March 26, 2020). The Uncertainty Around COVID-19 is Almost as bad as the Disease. But we may Soon Find Relief. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-the-uncertainty-around-covid-19-is-almost-as-bad-as-the-disease-but/

Harris, K. (June 8, 2020). Exploitation, Abuse, Health Hazards Rise for Migrant Workers During COVID-19, Group Says. CBC. Retrieved from:
https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/migrant-workers-farm-deaths-report-1.5602596

Kennedy, B. (April 29, 2020). Why are we still Seeing Random Shortages at the Supermarket?The Answer may Surprise you. The Star. Retrieved from: https://www.thestar.com/business/2020/04/29/why-are-we-still-seeing-random-shortages-at-the-supermarket-the-answer-may-surprise-you.html

Klassen, K. (March 31, 2020). Pandemic Reveals Importance of Growing Your own Food:Farmer. Barrie Today. Retrieved from: https://www.barrietoday.com/coronavirus-covid-19-local-news/pandemic-reveals-importance-of-growing-your-own-food-farmer-2210705

No Author. (May 16, 2020). People are Losing Their Clucking Minds Over Backyard Chickens. The Hustle. Retrieved from: https://thehustle.co/how-much-does-it-cost-to-raise-chickens-
          coronavirus/

Ross, S. (May 6, 2020). Thousands of Chicks Euthanized as COVID-19 Causes Plummet in Demand: Report. CTV News. Retrieved from: https://montreal.ctvnews.ca/thousands-of- chicks-euthanized-as-covid-19-causes-plummet-in-demand-report-1.4928503

Tunney, J. (June 8, 2020). Cooped-up Gatineau Residents Flocking to New Hobby: Backyard Chickens. CBC. Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/chicken-gati
          neau-backyard-hens-1.5602536

Exploitation in Canada’s Migrant Agricultural Worker Program: An Issue of Racialization

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a myriad of systemic issues in Canada, and some of the most reported-on undoubtedly relate to our food system. Health-and-safety related complaints from mostly seasonal or migrant agricultural workers across Canada have raised public concerns, and while COVID-19 has amplified these issues, they are certainly not new. These issues stem from centuries of a racialized workforce, and make themselves apparent in varied, harmful ways. 

Canada has been relying on migrant agricultural labour for a long time. The Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) has been meeting the agricultural industry’s labour needs in Canada since 1974 (Brem, 2006, pp. 2). This program, as described on The Government of Canada’s website, states that employers can hire temporary foreign workers (referred to as TFWs) from Mexico and participating Carribean countries for no more than 8 months, and must offer a minimum of 240 hours of work within a 6-week period (Government of Canada). 

Workers in the SAWP program face regular injustices. Working up to 14 hour days on little pay and unlivable conditions, and forced to work while sick or injured, many complaints have been brought forward, with little to no change (The Canadian Press, 2019). Many workers have reported pest infestations and sewage leaks (Mojtehedzadeh & Renwick, 2019), beatings, harassment, and sexual violence (Weiler, 2018). Furthermore, many are denied medical attention for serious health issues (Brend, 2017), a problem only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which, in fear of a supply chain breakdown (Nickel & Walljasper, 2020), workers are being forced to sign COVID-19 waivers (Mojtehedzadeh, 2020), and with close living conditions and forced labour through illness (yes, even COVID-19) causing dramatic spikes in coronavirus cases among these migrant labourers (Bogart, 2020). 

While this might seem shocking, Canada is no stranger to out-sourcing labour: to utilize only one other example of Canada’s history with migrant labourers, we can turn to the Canadian Pacific Railway, which was built in the 19th century by a majority of Chinese labourers, who worked for very little pay under extremely harsh, often deadly conditions (Sylvester, 2016). While of course these situations both come with their own specific injustices, it is clear that Canada has, both historically and in the present day, fostered a systemic relationship with migrant labour, outsourcing physically difficult, underpaid labour to racialized folks. 

This unbalanced system, which focuses on maximizing profit and accessibility of food to the global North, at the expense of workers from the global South (Steacy & Bernard, 2020), is maintained through racist ideologies and systems. While recognized as imperative to the function of Canada’s supply chain (Hastie, 2020), migrant workers are still often seen as disposable, or impervious to physical harm (Valiente, 2020). When these racialized workers are only valued for the product their labour allows, and when the Canadian food system relies on this unjust labour, it is clear that systemic change needs to take place. 

Works Cited: 

Bogart, N. (June 29, 2020). Advocates demand Ontario shut down farms as COVID-19 cases soar among workers. CTV News. Retrieved from: https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/advocates-demand-ontario-shut-down-farms-as-covid-19-cases-soar-among-workers-1.5004897

Brem, Maxwell. (2006). Migrant workers in Canada: a review of the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. The North-South Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.nsi-ins.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/2006-Migrant-Workers-in-Canada-A-review-of-the-Canadian-Seasonal-Agricultural-Workers-Program.pdf

Brend, Y. (August 26, 2017). Mexican farm worker says he was told heart attack symptoms caused by ‘too much chili.’ CBC. Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/migrant-worker-mexican-farm-labour-heart-damage-cranberry-richmond-bc-1.4261565

Government of Canada. Hire a temporary worker through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program: Overview. Retrieved on July 15th, 2020, from: https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/services/foreign-workers/agricultural/seasonal-agricultural.html

Hastle, B. (May 12, 2020). The coronavirus reveals the necessity of Canada’s migrant workers. The Conversation. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/the-coronavirus-reveals-the-necessity-of-canadas-migrant-workers-136360

Mojtehedzadeh, S. (April 13, 2020). Migrant farm workers from Jamaica are being forced to sign COVID-19 waivers. The Star. Retrieved from: https://www.thestar.com/business/2020/04/13/migrant-farm-workers-fear-exposure-to-covid-19.html

Mojtehedzadeh, S., and Renwick, M. (October 14, 2019). Snakes, rats, bedbugs, abuse. Migrant worker complains expose underside of Canada’s seasonal agriculture program. The Hamilton Spectator. Retrieved from: https://www.thespec.com/news/hamilton-region/2019/10/14/snakes-rats-bedbugs-abuse-migrant-worker-complaints-expose-underside-of-canada-s-seasonal-agriculture-program.html

Nickel, R., and Walljasper, C. (April 6, 2020). Canada, U.S. farms face crop losses due to foreign worker delays. Reuters. Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-farmworkers/canada-u-s-farms-face-crop-losses-due-to-foreign-worker-delays-idUSKBN21O179

Steacy, L., and Bernard, R. (March 20, 2020). ‘Crucial to our food security:’ Canada remains open to temporary foreign farm workers. CityNews. Retrieved from: https://edmonton.citynews.ca/2020/03/20/temporary-farm-workers-essential-border/

Sylvester, E. (April 28, 2016). Now and then: Chinese railroad workers memorial. Torontoist. Retrieved from: https://torontoist.com/2016/04/now-and-then-chinese-railroad-workers/

The Canadian Press Staff. (March 16, 2019). Calls for reform after Ontario migrant workers claim they worked in terrible conditions. Global News. Retrieved from: https://globalnews.ca/news/5063850/migrant-workers-reform-ontario/

Valiente, G. (April 27, 2020). Farmers say it takes more than two Quebecers to replace one migrant worker. Canada’s National Observer. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalobserver.com/2020/04/27/news/farmers-say-it-takes-more-two-quebecers-replace-one-migrant-worker

Weiler, A. (May 4, 2018). Migrant farm workers vulnerable to sexual violence: UofT expert. UofT News. Retrieved from: https://www.utoronto.ca/news/migrant-farm-workers-vulnerable-sexual-violence-u-t-expert